World Wildlife Fund Supports Startups in the Forest
Runa works with 2,000 indigenous farmers of Kichwa nationality (as pictured above) in the Ecuadorian Amazon to produce guayusa tea (Photo courtesy of subject).
By Lindsay Hebert
In December, the World Wildlife Fund Switzerland teamed with Ennovent, a supporter of sustainable innovation, to present the Tropical Forest Challenge . The initiative seeks to discover for-profit enterprises who promote tropical forest biodiversity through their work.
Runa, winner of the company category, creates US markets for guayusa, tea grown by indigenous farmers in Ecuador. Planting Empowerment won for the startup category and advocates responsible use of natural resources through agroforestry projects in Panama.
Dowser speaks with Runa’s CEO Tyler Gage and Planting Empowerment’s Director of Marketing Andrew Parrucci about mixing business with stewardship of the forest.
When did your appreciation for the forest begin?
Gage: Since I was a kid I was fascinated by the concept of the Amazon. Growing up in a suburban area, the idea of the rainforest was like a fantasy to me. I can remember seeing a map of South America, pointing to Ecuador and saying “I want to go there.”
Parrucci: Even when I was very young I had a passion for working with my hands. After I graduated from college, I took a year off and did woodworking for a company that does architectural restorations. After, when I was volunteering for the Peace Corps in Panama, the wood they were logging out of the area was wood I had used as a woodworker. So I was able to see the other side of the industry, the tropical deforestation and the drastic environmental consequences.
How do your business models promote biodiversity and sustainability?
Parucci: The traditional forestry model is to plant a single type of tree. It’s cheaper to do that, but it’s more damaging for the environment because it requires heavier chemical inputs. Typically, the more biodiverse the forestry system, the healthier it is. By showing the people that we can help them earn more income with the land they’re using now, we hope to keep them tied to that land, instead of going out to cut more rainforest. (See graph on left, courtesy of Planting Empowerment).
Gage: One of the main issues with modern agriculture is that it’s not consistent with how the Amazonian people relate to the environment or a sustainable way to manage resources in a biodiverse place. The community does forest gardening, managing small gardens with fruit and medicinal plants within the forest. Native plants had been grown this way but hadn’t reached the market. This gave us impetus to produce them in a sustainable way while providing financial incentive to avoid destruction of the forest.
Planting Empowerment leases land from Panamanians while Runa works with farmers in the Amazon rainforest. How does the local culture contribute to ideas about conservation?
Parucci: After living in Panama for two years, my partners and I came to understand that people who are cutting down trees depend on them as a source of income. It’s a big part of how they put food on the table. It’s easy to say that deforestation is bad, but it’s different when you understand that it has social consequences and in some ways, [conservation] would be taking away their livelihood. It’s a constant balancing act. That’s why we lease land from them to show that we can take deforested land, regenerate forest cover and generate revenue.
Gage: The rainforest plays an essential role in the identity of the local people. It is part of who they are in the deepest way imaginable. It’s not just the place that they live, it’s their supermarket and pharmacy. Runa means “fully alive,” or most fully a person, but their notion of personhood isn’t dependant on being human. There can be jaguar runa or tree runa. They have a very intimate relationship with the forest.